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The Healthy Living Magazine

7 Obstacles to Sensible Eating—And How to Beat Them

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Whether you have a sweet tooth or salty side, you can lose weight without sacrificing your favorite foods. That’s what doctors, dietitians, and other diet gurus tell people who are looking to drop pounds. The motto goes something like this: Eat what you love, just less of it.

The idea sounds good—few people want to give up favorite foods completely—but it’s often easier said than done. Read on for expert-approved tips on overcoming the challenges that may prevent you from eating in moderation.

Overeating, like smoking and alcoholism, can be seen as a type of addiction, says Ashley Gearhardt, PhD, assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Michigan. Some foods are even engineered with added sugar and fat to encourage us to eat more. “Companies don’t make money if you eat less,” she says. “If you’re craving their foods, that helps the bottom line.”

But society’s method for fighting food addiction hasn’t worked. “Telling people that something is bad for them and that they need to stop, that they need more willpower, is not terribly effective,” Gearhardt says. It’s the same approach that’s been taken with reducing alcohol addiction, with similar poor results. A more effective model would be the approach used to combat smoking: making the substance itself less accessible to people. Tobacco regulations removed cigarette vending machines from public places. One way to restrict access to unhealthy foods is to regulate or remove junk food vending machines.

“What happens with addiction is that if the environment undermines your ability to stop, we won’t see a lot of results,” she says. And highly addictive foods are everywhere: in school and office vending machines, at fast food restaurants, prominently displayed on grocery store endcaps, and on the shelves of easy-in, easy-out convenience stores. Healthy foods, in contrast, are less accessible and often less affordable. Experts list the following factors as playing a role in the way Americans eat—or overeat.

1. Portion Sizes

Restaurant meals often surpass portion size recommendations. That’s a problem because people are conditioned to eat what’s on their plate and find it tough to stop eating when they’re enjoying the food in front of them. “For people with addictive-like eating, once you start consuming, it is hard to stop at one glass of wine or one scoop of ice cream,” Gearhardt says. 

Make a Change: When dining out, ask for a to-go container at the time you order your food. Divide the restaurant-sized portion in half before you start eating and save it for another meal.

2. Conditioned as Children

Children are particularly “reward responsive,” says Gearhardt, who has studied the way specific regions of the brain react when people are shown visual cues, such as a picture of a chocolate milkshake or a fast food restaurant logo. “Children’s brains are more likely to have a reaction than an adult’s,” she says. The food industry knows this and markets heavily to children and teens, who are more likely than adults to use food to regulate their emotions. According to Gearhardt, children see roughly 6,000 food commercials every year.

Make a Change: Limit time spent in front of screens and interrupt viewing sessions with physical activity. Don’t watch TV and snack at the same time.

3. Lack of Specifics

Lifelong unhealthy eating habits are hard to break, even when you know why you should. “Doctors tell people what to do, [but] don’t tell them how to do it,” says Judith Wylie-Rosett, EdD, RD, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Patients are eager to get information from their health care providers, but according to a 2010 study in Health Services Research, they rate their physicians quite low on how well they conduct obesity counseling. People may have trouble understanding how to work medical advice into a daily routine, a part of treatment doctors may glaze over. “They tell them, ‘Don’t eat this and that,’ instead of ‘Let’s figure out how to make  this easier for you,’ ” Wylie-Rosett says.

Make a Change: Ask your doctor for a referral to a dietitian (RD or RDN), especially one who is a certified diabetes educator (CDE), for customized nutrition counseling called “medical nutrition therapy” (often covered by health insurance).

4. Time Management Problems

“One of the reasons people commonly give for not eating healthy is ‘I don’t have time,’ ” says Wylie-Rosett. But waiting in line at the drive-through can take just as much time as preparing a quick, healthy meal at home. For breakfast, it takes just minutes to toast half of a whole wheat English muffin, spread it with peanut butter, and grab a piece of fruit. You’ll also have more time to enjoy your food if you don’t have to wait in line at a so-called “fast food” restaurant.

Make a Change: Pack a healthy lunch the night before to take with you to work or activities.

5. Eating Disorders

For some people with diabetes, eating properly is even more complicated because they struggle with an eating disorder. Binge eating is common. And people who use insulin sometimes withhold the medication in an attempt to drop weight. Marion Olmsted, PhD, a psychologist and director of the Eating Disorder Program at Toronto General Hospital, has done research that suggests eating disorders are nearly twice as common in adolescent girls with type 1 diabetes, and that these disorders are associated with insulin omission for weight loss, leading to impaired metabolic control. These girls can feel conflicted between wanting to lose weight and managing their diabetes, she says.

One problem is that people on insulin and certain other medications must eat according to a plan instead of listening to internal cues that tell them when they’re hungry or full. “This can be challenging, and the pressure to do other than what your body feels like doing is much harder for some people emotionally than others,” Olmstead says.

Make a Change: Use screening tools, such as those at mybodyscreening.org, to help identify risk factors for eating disorders worth discussing with your health care provider.

6. Feelings of Failure

“Many people who try to diet do not actually lose weight,” Olmsted says. “For a person who has diabetes, this may mean that they feel like they have failed at weight control. They may also feel they have failed with regard to management of their diabetes. How well you are doing can be very public, especially within the family and in relation to diabetes care providers. All of this can make it even harder to adhere to a diet.”

Make a Change: Don’t demand perfection of yourself or others. Support efforts to change and be healthy. Celebrate step-by-step victories.

7. Weight acceptance

“Some people are just meant to weigh more than others,” Olmsted says. “But we are conditioned to believe that we can weigh what we want if we work hard at it and exercise self-control.” Shift your focus from weight to nutrition. “You need to nourish yourself properly,” she says. “Don’t overdo it, but also don’t underdo it.”

Make a Change: Focus on good nutrition, fitness, and health measures such as on-target “ABCs”—A1C (blood glucose), blood pressure, and cholesterol. There is no single, ideal body shape.

Tips for Eating in Moderation

When today’s eating environment challenges your coping skills, consider these healthful “eat less, eat better” suggestions:

  • Use smaller dishes. You’ll be less inclined to feel deprived if the plate looks full, even if the portion size is smaller.
  • Make the healthy choice the easy choice: Stock your favorite healthy foods, and keep high-calorie, high-fat items out of the pantry or out of sight.
  • Before eating out, look at the menu online and decide what you’re going to order. Order first if you are with a group so that others’ choices don’t influence yours.
  • Eat raw, nonstarchy veggies as an appetizer at home before going out to a restaurant. Do not arrive overly hungry.
  • Check your emotional state: You’re more likely to overeat when you’re sad, stressed, bored, or anxious. If you are feeling any of these emotions, do something else to combat those feelings, rather than eating as a solution.
  • Avoid trigger foods. Let’s face it: Some foods are tough to eat in moderation. Are you unable to eat just a few french fries or a small portion of ice cream? If you can’t control the amount you eat, control how often you eat these foods.
  • When you mess up, forgive yourself. Have some compassion for others who do the same. Tomorrow is a new day. Start fresh and move on.